Ancient books give bird's eye view of history
Vu Ha Tue is a young collector of old books in HCM City. His collection includes more than 30 rare and precious editions of the Tale of Kieu (an epic poem written by Nguyen Du (1766 – 1820), and the most significant work of Vietnamese literature) and over 300 autographed books.
Inner Sanctum: Is there any connection between being an architect and a collector of old books and precious printed matters?
I graduated from university in 2004, but in 2002, while studying, I happened to read a picture book in remembrance of Nguyen Du. From the curious illustrations in the book, I found other illustrations of the Tale of Kieu and grew concerned about the various editions of the story. That's when I started collecting Kieu.
As an architect, I'm also concerned about drawings of ancient structures, and ready to collect them if I happen to see those drawings. My hobby of collecting books might originate in the bookcase of my family. My father was a teacher of literature before 1975, so there were a lot of books in my house. When I was a child, I used to read the books from my family's bookcase, and gradually grew a deep passion for them as well as the desire to collect books and manuscripts.
Inner Sanctum: Did you start your hobby by collecting editions of the Tale of Kieu? Are there any unforgettable memories from your journey?
Since I started collecting books, I have joined groups of people with the same hobby where I exchange information and get connected to other book collectors throughout the country via the internet.
There are many memories I have from collecting books. For example, while I was looking for books on the internet, I discovered that there are two editions of the Tale of Kieu in French for sale in a bookstore in France. Vietnamese collectors have considered editions of the story in French rare, including those two.
After purchasing, I discovered that those two editions are like two peas in a pod. Curious, I spent much time studying the two translators and found out that they were actually one in the same person: a French translator using a Vietnamese name.
Up to now, I have collected about 40 valuable editions of the Tale of Kieu. According to the classification of senior book collectors, I have nearly all precious editions, except for several editions like those translated into French by A. Michel or by Bui Khanh Dien. However, in recent years, I have focused on collecting the manuscripts and autographs of renowned writers, just for pleasure not for sale.
Inner Sanctum: Why autographs?
Collectors have various purposes. For me, I'm only interested in preserving works of writers. When I hold a manuscripts by Vu Trong Phung, I feel as if this renowned writer was embodied in every line of words. Or, holding the book Trung Hoa Su Cuong (An outline of Chinese history) signed by its author Dao Duy Anh makes me imagine that he used to hold this book like I do today. It makes me very happy to think about that.
The signature of the author makes a book unique and increases its value. At times, autographs can contain important information about time or places related to the writers' life, which is very valuable for researchers of the next generation to clarify material issues.
Inner Sanctum: It seems that the collectors have to constantly study in order to determine the value of autographs. Is that true?
To me, finding the autographs is not as important as finding their values. Such a journey is painstaking but it contributes to the understanding of the writers; therefore, collectors shouldn't be seen as the rich who only know to how buy, preserve and set prices. For example, I bought the book Trung Hoa Su Cuong (The outline of Chinese history) signed by the author Dao Duy Anh himself and given to My Am, whom most collectors might be unfamiliar with. I looked up the information and found out that My Am turned out to be son of Truong Vinh Ky (a Vietnamese scholar whose publications helped improve understanding between colonial Viet Nam and Europe).
Also on that journey, I happened to learn about the story of the novel entitled Giong Toá (Rainstorm) by writer Vu Trong Phung. This book was collected by priest Nguyen Huu Triet and signed by its author as a gift for a person called Nguyen Tai Thuc. Enclosed in the book is also Phung's press card given to Nguyen Tai Thuc but no one knew who he was. One day, by accident, I purchased a literature criticism book with the signature of its author given to Dong Chi Nguyen Tai Thuc. From this detail, I follow the clue of the name Dong Chi and discovered that he was a journalist in Sai Gon who used to write literature reviews for newspapers and highly appreciated the works of Vu Trong Phung at that time (during the 1930s). Such a relationship might have motivated Vu Trong Phung to give both his book and press card to Nguyen Tai Thuc.
Inner Sanctum: Could you reveal something about your favourite manuscripts and your future research?
Presently, I have autographs of more than 300 writers, 20 to 30 of which are rare. Manuscripts are much more precious than signatures because they were formed prior to printing and have their own values. At the moment, many book collectors have asked renowned temporary writers to recopy their works, which is also another way to collect autographs.
My career as an architect is busiest from the middle to the end of the year. My spare time is spent collecting and studying the materials. I also intend to assemble other enthusiastic book collectors with the hopes of publishing a collection of books with autographs and portraits of Vietnamese writers. I haven't thought about its cover and content yet. I will ask temporary authors like Nguyen Ngoc Tu and Nguyen Quang Than for their autographs. This hobby is very interesting because it is supported by time. — VNS